Women in Ancient Israel

Jewish Women and the Temple

In the Temple proper the females occupied, according to Jewish tradition, only a raised gallery along three sides of the court. They were allowed to observe the ceremonies but never to participate in them.

Rabbinic literature was filled with contempt for women. The rabbis taught that women were not to be saluted, or spoken to in the street, and they were not to be instructed in the law or receive an inheritance. A woman walked six paces behind her husband and if she uncovered her hair in a public place she was considered a harlot.

Women in the First Century A.D.

In ancient Israel the Jewish culture was one of the most male dominant cultures in the whole world. In ancient Judaism the woman only had rights in the home and even that was very limited. The man had authority over his wife and daughters establishing their activities and their relationships. Women were passed from the control of her father to the control of her husband with little or no say in the matter. They were sold for a dowry settlement usually when they came of age. The Mishnah taught that a woman was like a gentile slave who could be obtained by intercourse, money or writ (m. Qidd 1:1).

Women could not play a significant role in the synagogue because they were levitically unclean for several days every month during their menstrual cycle. Women were not even counted as members in a synagogue count. They did not recite the daily shema, they did not read the Torah in the synagogue (Ber 3:3), they were not required to come to any feasts or festivals, and the Mishnah says:

"The observance of all the positive ordinances that depend on the time of year is incumbent on men but not on women…"

Women were only allowed to receive very little education on religion and the main religious instruction in the home was given by the man and not the woman. They could not be disciples of any great rabbi, they certainly could not travel with any rabbi.

In court a woman’s testimony was considered suspect (m. Ned. 11:10). Women also did not have the right to divorce.

Jesus the Radical

In light of what we know about Jewish life in the first century A.D. Jesus’ teaching must have seemed very radical. He was not one to show partiality. In fact many women followed Jesus… including prostitutes. There is mention of Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, the "other Mary", the mother of the sons of Zebedee, and of course Mary and Martha. Jesus was very concerned with the treatment of women and in fact a great portion of His ministry was in direct relationship with women. One of the first people that Jesus healed was Peter’s mother (Mark 1). Jesus also healed the woman with the hemorrhage (Luke 8), He raised the widow of Nain’s son from the dead (Luke 7), He healed the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter (Mark 7), and when Mary and Martha pleaded with Him He raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11).

In Jesus’ teachings He focused on women quite often and used women as illustrations of spiritual truths in His teachings. One woman loses a coin (Luke 15), two women are grinding at the mill just before His return in glory (Luke 17). On his journey to Galilee He passed through Samaria and comes to Jacob’s well at Sychar and ministers to a woman of questionable reputation (John 4). Jesus also ministered to the woman caught in adultery (John 7). Notice also that many women followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem:

Matt 27:55-56 "And many women who followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to Him, were there looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee's sons."

And these women were there at His crucifixion. After Jesus was crucified the women prepared His body for burial with spices and ointments (Matt 27).

On the morning of the resurrection the women were the first to the tomb and the first to see the risen Lord (Matt 28).

After Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, He commissioned His apostles and breathed the Holy Spirit into them. As the 120 were waiting in the Upper Room in Jerusalem there is mention of Mary, the mother of her Savior, and "the women":

Acts 1:14 "These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers."

Jesus showed no partiality to men even in the fact that He chose 12 male apostles. In Christ women are liberated in order to serve Jesus in an equal manner.

Gal 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

Read More about The Jerusalem Temple.


Some Commentary Notes:

Edersheim - The musical instruments used by the Levites were deposited in two rooms under the Court of the Israelites, to which the access was from the Court of the Women. Of course the western colonnade of this court was open. Thence fifteen easy steps led through the so-called Gate of Nicanor into the Court of Israel. On these steps the Levites were wont on the Feast of Tabernacles to sing the fifteen 'Psalms of Degrees,' or ascent (Psalms 120 to 134), whence some have derived their name. Here, or, rather, in the Gate of Nicanor, all that was ordered to be done 'before the Lord' took place. There the cleansed leper and the women coming for purification presented themselves to the priests, and there also the 'water of jealousy' was given to the suspected wife. Read More

Edersheim - Court of the Women. The Court of the Women obtained its name, not from its appropriation to the exclusive use of women, but because they were not allowed to proceed farther, except for sacrificial purposes. Indeed, this was probably the common place for worship, the females occupying, according to Jewish tradition, only a raised gallery along three sides of the court. This court covered a space upwards of 200 feet square. All around ran a simple colonnade, and within it, against the wall, the thirteen chests, or 'trumpets,' for charitable contributions were placed.